Because without having to fill in the audience about everything else that’s come before—about Wolverine in Japan (from “The Wolverine”), or how hero Professor X and villain Magneto were allies once (from “X-Men: First Class”)—the film gives itself time to let its characters breathe. It shows you the desperation of these characters, their concern that the world will never accept them, their self-imposed isolation from society. It builds you up to the realization that no one will fight for them, that they need to go on the offensive, that they need to fight for their own survival. There are no storytelling shortcuts here; no narrative breaks. “Days of Future Past” gives itself time to build a plan and then execute it, and that may sound simple, but that’s what the best superhero movies do. You need to understand these characters to care about them. And if you walk out of “Days of Future Past” without caring about anyone, well, I’m not sure you saw the same movie I did.
“Days of Future Past” adapts an iconic two-book story arc from the original “X-Men” comics, in which the future (2013 in the comics) is not very nice for our mutant friends. Robots called the Sentinels are able to track down mutants and kill them, and everything is very dire, very post-apocalyptic, very chaotic. In one last move, the mutants decide to send back in time the mutant Kitty Pryde to her younger body, so she can set into motion a series of events that would negate the creation of the Sentinels and their current reality. The only catch: They’re not exactly sure if it will work, and if it does, then the mutants won’t have any memory of their current reality. It’s a high-risk choice, but what others do they have? The storyline introduced time travel to the X-Men universe, and the comics have never been the same since.
In this adaptation, director Bryan Singer (who also helmed the first two movies of the first X-men trilogy) and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (who also wrote the final film in that trilogy, “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which was terrible, but no matter) change some things up. The year isn’t 2013, but 2023; it’s not Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page, of “The East”) who goes back in time, but Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, of “Les Misérables”); and the plan isn’t to foil the assassination of Sen. Robert Kelly (who was already the bad guy in the first “X-Men” movie), but the assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, of “Ice Age 4: Continental Drift”), the scientist who created the Sentinels, by the mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”).
They’re all solid changes—Wolverine is a more known character to film viewers than Kitty; the series has already used Kelly, so he can’t be reused as a villain—and by the time Wolverine is sent to 1973 to gather up the X-Men and avoid the murder, you’re already on board. And because the film serves as a sequel to both “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men: The Last Stand,” there’s a merging of plots that is quite successful: The gravity of the situation is portrayed well by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, who resume their roles as the older Professor X and Magneto, but the groovy ‘70s are captured nicely by the younger cast members who return from “First Class.” It’s the best of both worlds.
And it helps that Wolverine’s mission in 1973 is fairly streamlined: find the younger versions of Professor X and Magneto (James McAvoy of “Muppets Most Wanted” and Michael Fassbender of “12 Years a Slave,” respectively), convince them to help him find and stop Mystique, and don’t set off too many other changes in the past that could still enable the creation of the Sentinels and the eventual destruction of the mutant race. With that singular goal in mind, the film is able to explore other subplots, and successfully: the resentment and anger between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, who have been apart for nearly a decade since initially becoming friends; the militant mentality of Mystique, who grew up as Charles’s little sister but was trained into rebellion by Erik; the belief by Trask that he’s creating a more peaceful world instead of a more dangerous one. It’s all serious stuff, but it’s not handled stodgily; there’s believable emotion here.
There’s also fantastic action: a slowed-down scene inside the Pentagon with a superfast mutant who rearranges police officers so they don’t kill his friends is excellent, completely worth the price of the extra 3-D; it’s possibly the most memorable sequence in the entire “X-Men” franchise. How some new mutants fight the Sentinels in the future, using portals in space and time, are similarly engaging. The only quibbles, then, are the actors who are underused in all this (Nicholas Hoult as Beast feels ancillary, not integral, and the exclusion of one original X-Men character is obvious) and the final showdown, which is reminiscent of how “First Class” ended; it feels like a rejection of action instead of an embrace of it. In an otherwise well-paced movie, that’s the most pressing flaw.
And yet the heart of this movie is about personal choice, about the definition of the self: What is our responsibility to those who reject us? To what parts of ourselves, of our friends, of our society, should we be most loyal? Questions of identity are always floating around superhero movies, but “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” with its ability to consider both what we’ve done before and what we may yet do, gives us angles we haven’t considered before.
Enjoy reading this review? Check out our roundup of what other films are opening this week.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.